Merry Christmas — 1778

Edward Dixon
7 min readMar 2, 2024

How a prosperous family of candle manufacturers spent a Christmas in the Ireland of 1778. This is an except from Sir Jonah Barrington’s 1827 book, “Personal Sketches”.

Close to the kennel of his hounds my father had built a small cottage, which was occupied solely by an old huntsman, his older wife, and his nephew, a whipper-in. The chase, and the bottle, and the piper were the enjoyments of winter, and nothing could recompense a suspension of these enjoyments.
My elder brother justly apprehending that the frost and snow of Christmas might probably prevent their usual occupation of the chase, determined to provide against any listlessness during the shut-up period by an uninterrupted match of what was called “hard-going” till the weather should break up.
A hogshead of superior claret was, therefore, sent to the cottage of old Quinn, the huntsman; and a fat cow, killed and plundered of her skin, was hung up by the heels. All the windows were closed to keep out the light. One room, filled with straw and numerous blankets, was destined for a bed-chamber in common, and another was prepared as a kitchen for the use of the servants. Claret, cold, mulled, or buttered, was to be the beverage for the whole company, and in addition to the cow above mentioned, chickens, bacon and bread were the only admitted viands. Wallace and Hosey, my father’s old brother’s pipers, and Boyle, a blind but a famous fiddler, were employed to enliven the banquet, which it was determined should continue till the cow became a skeleton, and the claret should be on its stoop.

My two elder brothers; two gentlemen of the name of Taylor, one of them afterwards a writer in India; a Mr. Barrington Lodge, a rough songster; Frank Skelton, a jester and a butt; Jemmy Moffat, the most knowing sportsman of the neighbourhood; and two other sporting gentlemen of the county, composed the permanent bacchanalians. A few visitors were occasionally admitted.

As for myself, I was too unseasoned to go through more than the first ordeal, which was on a frosty St. Stephen’s Day, when the “hard-goers” partook of their opening banquet, and several neighbours were invited, to honour the commencement of what they called their “shut-up pilgrimage.”

The old huntsman was the only male attendant, and his ancient spouse, once a kitchen-maid in the family, now somewhat resembling the amiable Leonarda in Gil Blas, was the cook, whilst the drudgery fell to the lot of the whipper-in. A long knife was prepared to cut collops from the cow; a large turf fire seemed to court the gridiron; the pot bubbled up as if proud of its contents, whilst plump white chickens floated in crowds upon the surface of the water; the simmering potatoes, just bursting their drab surtouts, exposed the delicate whiteness of their mealy bosoms; the claret was tapped, and the long earthen wide-mouthed pitchers stood gaping under the impatient cock, to receive their portions. The pipers plied their chants, the fiddler tuned his Cremona, and never did any feast commence with more auspicious appearances of hilarity and dissipation, appearances which were not doomed to be falsified.

I shall never forget the attraction this novelty had for my youthful mind. All thoughts but those of good cheer were for the time totally obliterated. A few curses were, it is true, requisite to spur on old Leonarda’s skill, but at length the banquet entered: the luscious smoked bacon, bedded in its cabbage mattress, and partly obscured by its own savoury steam, might have tempted the most fastidious of epicures; whilst the round trussed chickens, ranked by the half dozen on hot pewter dishes, turned up their white plump merry-thoughts, exciting equally the eye and appetite; fat collops of the hanging cow, sliced indiscriminately from her tenderest points, grilled over the clear embers upon a shining gridiron, half-drowned in their own luscious juices, and garnished with little pyramids of congenial shallots, smoked at the bottom of the well-furnished board. A prologue of cherry-bounce (brandy) preceded the entertain­ment, which was enlivened by hob-nobs and joyous toasts.

Numerous toasts, in fact, as was customary in those days, intervened to prolong and give zest to the repast — every man shouted forth his fair favourite, or convivial pledge; and each voluntarily surrendered a portion of his own reason in bumpers to the beauty of his neighbour’s toast. The pipers jerked from their bags appropriate planxties to every jolly sentiment; the jokers cracked the usual jests and ribaldry; one songster chanted the joys of wine and women; another gave, in full glee, the pleasures of the fox chase; the fiddler sawed his merriest jigs; the old huntsman sounded his horn, and thrusting his forefingers into his ear, to aid the quaver, gave the view halloa! of nearly ten minutes’ duration, to which the melody tally ho! was responded by every stentorian voice. A fox’s brush stuck into a candlestick, in the centre of the tables, was worshipped as a divinity! Claret flowed, bumpers were multiplied, and chickens, in the garb of spicy spitchcocks, assumed the name of devils to whet the appetites which it was impossible to conquer!

My reason gradually began to lighten me of its burden, and in its last efforts kindly suggested the straw-chamber as my asylum. Two couple of favourite hounds had been introduced to share in the joyous pastime of their friends and master; and the deep bass of their throats, excited by the shrillness of the huntsman’s tenor, harmonised by two rattling pipers, a jiggling fiddler, and twelve voices, in twelve different keys, all bellowing in one continuous unrelenting chime, was the last point of recognition which Bacchus permitted me to exercise, for my eyes began to perceive a much larger company than the room actually contained; the lights were more than doubled, without any virtual increase of their number, and even the chairs and tables commenced dancing a series of minuets before me. A faint tally ho! was attempted by my reluctant lips; but I believe the effort was unsuccessful, and I very soon lost, in the straw-room, all that brilliant consciousness of existence in the possession of which the morning had found me so happy.

Just as I was closing my eyes to a twelve hours’ slumber, I distinguished the general roar of “stole away!” which rose almost up to the very roof of old Quin’s cottage.

At noon, next day, a scene of a different nature was exhibited. I found, on waking, two associates by my side, in as perfect insensibility as that from which I had just aroused. Our piper seemed indubitably dead; but the fiddler, who had the privilege of age and blindness, had taken a hearty nap, and seemed as much alive as ever.

The room of banquet had been re-arranged by the old woman; spitchcocked chickens, fried rashers, and broiled marrow-bones appeared struggling for precedence. The clean cloth looked itself fresh and exciting; jugs of mulled and buttered claret foamed hot upon the re-furnished table, and a better or heartier breakfast I never in my life enjoyed.

A few members of the jovial crew had remained all night at their posts, but, I suppose, alternately took some rest, as they seemed not at all affected by their repletion. Soap and hot water restored at once their spirits and their persons; and it was determined that the rooms should be ventilated and cleaned out for a cock-fight, to pass time till the approach of dinner.

In this battle-royal every man backed his own bird, twelve of which courageous animals were set down together to fight it out, the survivor to gain all. In point of principle, the battle of the Horatii and Curiatii was reacted, and in about an hour one cock crowed out his triumph over the mangled body of his last opponent, being himself, strange to say, but little wounded. The other eleven lay dead, and the victor was unanimously voted a writ of ease, with sole monarchy over the hen-roost for the remainder of his days; and I remember him for many years the proud commandant of his poultry-yard and seraglio. Fresh visitors were introduced each successive day, and the seventh morning had arisen before the feast broke up. As that day advanced, the cow was proclaimed to have furnished her full quantum of good dishes; the claret was upon its stoop, and the last gallon, mulled with a pound of spices, was drunk in tumblers to the next merry meeting! All now retired to their natural rest, until the evening announced a different scene.

An early supper, to be partaken of by all the young folks of both sexes in the neighbourhood, was provided in the dwelling-house to terminate the festivities. A dance, as usual, wound up the entertainment, and what was then termed a “raking pot of tea” put a finishing stroke, in jollity and good humour, to such a revel as I never saw before, and, I am sure, shall never see again.

SIR JONAH BARRINGTON (1760–1834)
Personal Sketches

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Edward Dixon

#AI guy, Principal/Founder @ Rigr AI, co-author of ‘Demystifying AI for the Enterprise’.